When Congress Goes to War

Congress needs to authorize his war.

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Congress will finally get a chance to take responsibility for its part in the global war against Islamic extremism. Or, to put it another way: On Wednesday, Congress will no longer be able to avoid responsibility for its part in the global war against Islamic extremism. It cannot afford to waste the opportunity.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will question Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the Barack Obama administration's draft authorization for the latest military effort in the Middle East. The administration's proposal is generally sound, but Congress can improve on it.

QuickTake U.S. War Powers

Among the things the White House draft gets right are that it revokes the 2002 authorization for the initial invasion of Iraq; it requires the administration to report to Congress regularly on actions taken under its authority; it gives the president and his military advisers broad flexibility to take on not just Islamic State but also "individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside" Islamic State or its successor; it specifically allows operations in Syria as well as in Iraq and sets no future geographic limits; and it has a firm expiration date of three years.

There are, however, problems with some of the specifics. A shorter sunset provision -- 18 months or two years -- would be preferable, and the White House should be required to report to the public as well as Congress more often than every six months. Those briefings should include a specific list of every new "associated" group the military targets, and an explanation of why it presents a clear danger.

In addition, the language over the potential use of ground troops is too vague -- it rules out "enduring offensive ground combat operations," which means nothing and everything. The draft also fails to repeal the 2001 authorization for force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has been the administration's primary justification for actions in Iraq and Syria since last summer. Why create a new legal framework for this war if the president can rely on an older one that he has used, more or less, to do anything he wants?

Last, the draft lacks a preamble that describes what, exactly, the overall goal is. Such a mission statement would have no legal authority, but it is hardly irrelevant: It could give the public more confidence in a 15-year-old struggle that can seem haphazard and endless. Is it driving Islamic State out of its self-proclaimed caliphate? Eradicating it entirely? Bringing some sort of political and military stability to all of Mesopotamia? Until Congress answers those questions, the war against terrorism will remain on shaky ground.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.